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Wrapped in Culture: Beyond the Aesthetics of African and Southeast Asian Textiles

Araba Dawson-Andoh
June 14, 2024
Two multicolored textiles displayed in a case.

Embark on a cultural journey through fabric and tradition! Come over to the Center for International Collections (CIC) to experience the rich tapestry of Southeast Asian and African Textiles without the hassles of travel. The new exhibit titled “Wrapped in Culture: Beyond the Aesthetics of African and Southeast Asian Textiles,” will feature fabrics from the CIC’s extensive collection of Southeast Asian textiles and selected African textiles and clothing from personal collections. The exhibit will display silk fabrics with intricate patterns from Laos, Cambodia and Thailand; batik sarongs from Indonesia, Songket from Malaysia, and Ikat from Indonesia and the Philippines. African textiles include traditional fabrics like Kente, Bogolan (mud cloth), Asooke and Shweshwe. Also in the display are African wax prints, and commemorative cloths. The exhibit showcases diverse techniques, symbols, and craftsmanship of fabric making that define these rich cultural heritages. 
Textiles are more than a source of functional clothing in African and Southeast Asian societies, they are important cultural artifacts; used as symbols in political, social, and religious traditions. In these two regions of the world textiles are not only used for aesthetic purposes, but they are also recognized as instruments to express cultural values, heritage, and identity. They are non-verbal communication tools used to convey social and personal status in society, celebrate rites of passage such as birth, marriage, and death. They may be given as gifts at engagements and wedding ceremonies, and births of children, or they may serve as burial shrouds. These rites of passage promote cultural identity and ensure the continuity of societal values and tradition. 
The richness of the texture of the fabric, pattern, color, or inscription on the cloth worn by an individual or group conveys messages to the larger community or society. The pattern in a fabric chronicles historical and contemporary events, reflecting social trends or celebrations. The Songket fabric is woven with gold or silver thread and was traditionally worn by royalty. They feature prominently in weddings, births, or festive occasions. The design, colors and threads used in the weaving of the Kente cloth of Ghana symbolizes a wearer’s social standing in society or wealth and is often worn on special occasions. 
Wax prints from West Africa contain messages either written or in the design. In Ghana most wax prints have local Akan proverbs attached to them. The color of the print tells a story – dark colors, like red, brown, or black, are associated with death while white, yellow, and light blue are worn for festive occasions. For instance, at a funeral of an elderly person participants may wear white prints to celebrate a long life, whilst a younger person will be mourned with black or red prints. The patterns and Swahili messages inscribed in the Kanga cloth from East Africa can convey personal messages, political campaign messages, religious events or raising awareness of health or development issues. Similarly, the motifs in batiks from Indonesia and Malaysia vary in patterns, shapes, and colors. Some convey Javanese and Malay moral messages, philosophy, values and religious beliefs.

The exhibit opens on Monday July 1, 2024. A formal exhibit opening event will be held during the fall semester. To learn more about the exhibit, contact Araba Dawson-Andoh or Jeff Shane.